Clarifying Question

Lyrics

Intercept that negative conclusion. 
Turn it around. 

Instead of a negative conclusion 
Ask a clarifying question. 
 Instead of a negative conclusion 
 Ask a clarifying question. 

    Don’t jump to a negative conclusion 
    Ask a clarifying question. 
     Don’t jump to a negative conclusion 
     Ask a clarifying question. 

Get out of the mud and the confusion 
Ask a clarifying question. 
 Get out of the mud and the confusion 
 Ask a clarifying question. 

    Don’t stomp in a puddle of confusion 
    Ask a clarifying question. 
     Don’t stomp in a puddle of confusion 
     Ask a clarifying question.

Conversation can be part of a solution 
Ask a clarifying question. 
 Conversation can be part of a solution 
 So ask a clarifying question. 

    Even if we don’t find resolution 
    We can make a human connection. 
     Even if we don’t find resolution 
     Make a human connection. 

Listen and acknowledge their frustration 
Make a human connection. 
 Listen and acknowledge their frustration 
 Make a human connection. 

    Understand a person’s motivation 
    Make a human connection. 
     Understand a person’s motivation 
     Ask a clarifying question. 
         Change that negative direction. 
         Ask a clarifying question. 
         Make a human connection. 
         Ask a clarifying question.

Reflections on this Song

Jumping to negative conclusions is a common behavior that demonstrates the opposite of Kavod, Respect. When we react to an emotional trigger, we jump into the abyss without thinking, without seeking more information, without understanding. Even worse, we start with negativity, which muddies and confuses everything we might subsequently learn. 

To counteract this tendency and promote a different response, I chant this phrase: Instead of a negative conclusion, ask a clarifying question. This simple chant grew into a longer song.

A clarifying question helps remove ambiguity, elicits further detail, and guides us in resolving the larger issue. A clarifying question does not imply anything negative about the people involved. To ask implies that the other person has reasons for their opinion or action, and offers an opportunity to explain their perspective. Listening to their responses attentively, carefully, and reflectively shows respect. The goal is not to convince, nor to judge—rather to understand, to make a human connection. 

In addition to Kavod, Respect, this song touches other middot:

  • Awareness, to notice my negative reaction
  • Strength, to restrain impulsive thinking and speaking
  • Silence, to listen well
  • Humility, recognizing how little I know
  • Curiosity, to seek clearer understanding and think of clarifying questions
  • Patience, waiting for answers, bearing cognitive dissonance
  • Truth, acknowledging what I did not see earlier

It’s a worthy challenge: to respect the tzelem Elohim, God’s likeness, in the other through the way we ask, listen, and respond. Asking clarifying questions and listening respectfully expresses kavod. With practice, we can see beyond disagreement and reactive negativity. When we understand another person’s frustration or motivation, we make a human connection. As we connect to another human being, we connect to the very likeness of God.

Middot

Respect  כבוד  Kavod
Awareness  זהירות  Zehirut
Humility  ענוה  Anavah
Truth  אמת  Emet
Patience  סבלנות  Savlanut
Silence  שתיקה  Shtikah
Self-Restraint  גבורה  Gevurah
Curiosity  סקרנות  Sakranut

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

This song and a version of the reflections were first published as part the Mussar Institute's Omer email series for 5779/2019.